AP Images/Universal Pictures Germany/dapd
I didn’t flinch watching Zero Dark Thirty. Usually at suspense films I squirm and grasp at the arm of the seat, the thigh of my companion. Anyone who has ever sat beside me at such films can expect muffled little shrieks and a hand, finally, drawn up like a blindfold.
“I can’t watch.”
“It’s only a movie.”
Not if it’s art; as the old poet understood, I readily suspend disbelief for a visionary or even skillful artist.
Zero Dark Thirty is the work of neither. It functions less as art than as a snuff film. Its torture sequences, and the photographs or videos of nameless prisoners that reappear throughout the film’s long lead-up, stoke the viewer for the climactic killing that everyone knows is coming. They do not excuse or glorify torture; they do something worse: they draw the audience into accommodating it.
If there be genius in this film, it is a counterfeit. The state inures the people to violence and tolerates enough dissent to convince most that barbarism doesn’t disqualify their nation from being on the side of right. It is an exquisitely calibrated system. So, assassination, of course; drones and bombing, sure; mass incarceration and death row, OK; torture, maybe… The film mimics this, while distilling conflict in the power battles of its CIA heroine, Maya, played by the otherwise inert Jessica Chastain.
Maya is cartoonishly queasy at her first torture interrogation but rolls with it, growing in confidence and righteousness, touting herself as a “motherfucker” after years of sexless, single-minded toil in pursuit of her quarry. Once bin Laden is bagged, she becomes a girl again, alone in a military transport plane. Naturally, she cries—for lost innocence?
It seems almost quaint now to recall that in 2004, when the first photographs from Abu Ghraib appeared in the press, the body in pain—stripped naked by our soldiers, shackled to cell bars or bunks, hooded and made to hold a pose for hours, stacked in a pyramid, forced to masturbate—shocked the conscience. America’s torture policy was already being debated by then, and Jack Bauer was already brutalizing his way toward America’s salvation every week in 24. Almost nothing that was done to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had not already been done to the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, or to prisoners held at black sites, forward operating bases or Guantánamo. Harvard’s Law School and Kennedy School of Government had already embarked on a project, underwritten by the Department of Homeland Security, to assess the efficacy of “coercive interrogation,” targeted killings, indefinite detention, etc. (Later all but one of those assessors would conclude that a little torture was sometimes necessary, provided it was accompanied by the proper oversight.)
The early torture debate was largely confined to narrow politico-cultural corridors. The snapshots taken by MPs in the dungeons of Iraq reached every corner of the world. For the briefest moment America was like Adam and Eve after the apple, exposed and ashamed. But because of their ubiquity—the media’s saturation-bombing approach to news—the photographs soon became emblems of another worn-out story, as familiar as commercials and only slightly more irritating. Like the MPs, who were shocked upon first encountering a tier of chained and naked prisoners with panties over their heads but soon got used to it, Americans moved on.